As the GIS Unit gears up for its second field trip to Peru, I thought I would share some thoughts and observations from our first trip in October and November 2012.
When people consider a trip to Peru, the first places they might think to visit are the Andes and Machu Picchu or the vast Amazon tropical rainforest - they rarely venture to the sites along the dry coast. I have to admit, I was one of those people. On my first journey to Peru I promptly made my way to Cuzco and trekked up to Machu Picchu with all the other tourists. So when I was told that the GIS team destination was the desert coast of Peru to find a lush and diverse ecosystem in the desert, I admit that I was a bit sceptical.
We were going in search of the Lomas, an extremely fragile ecosystem whose sole source of water is a coastal fog called Garúa, formed from cool, moist air driven up from the Humboldt Current pushing over the mountains of the coastal desert. These ecosystems span the coast of Peru and Chile in locations optimally combining moisture and elevation. Working alongside Peru’s SERNANP parks service and with the appropriate permits, our ultimate destination was the San Fernando Reserve, located on the coast of the Ica Region, approximately 30 kilometres southwest of Nazca.
We really did not know what to expect and a quick survey of some satellite images appeared to be giving little away.
GoogleEarth map of the Reservada San Fernando, Ica Province (Courtesy of GoogleEarth)
As we entered the reserve we started to see signs of life. The first area of vegetation we encountered was dominated by plants of the genus Tillandsia. What is incredible about these plants is that radio carbon samples indicate this system of vegetation is ancient (over 36,000 years old). We are only just beginning a journey to understand how the Tillandsia vegetation has apparently existed in the same place for millennia, surviving for much of the year without fog in a rainless world.
A Tillandsia plant
We continued over the last ridge towards the coast and discovered an area composed of a range of plant families, with the cacti, mallows (Malvaceae), legumes(leguminosae) and daisies (compositae or asteraceae) families predominating, and the whole area scattered with lilac flowering Nolanas (from the Solanaceae family).
Some of the beautiful flowers of the Lomas: A. Cactaceae family, B. Leguminosae family, C. Compositae family, D. Solanaceae family
Within this sandy landscape dotted with colourful flowers we made a base for five days.
The GIS team camping in the Reservada San Fernando
The Lomas is truly an amazing ecosystem, existing in a climate of extremes both of temperature and moisture. It was a challenge to start the day in temperatures reaching 30° C and ending the day at 15°C after the fog had rolled onto the hills.
View of sand dune transect within the Reservada San Fernando
We followed a 7 kilometre transect, varying 1,000 meters in elevation and descending the great sandy hills to sea level. Twenty plots were surveyed for species cover and 72 herbarium specimens were collected, many of them from species found nowhere else on earth. Herbarium specimens are small carefully selected bits of plants which, when pressed and dried, are vital to help conservation. They are the basic botanical scientific evidence, standing testament in the herbariums (plant libraries) of Peru and world. The samples are labelled with the GPS coordinates of where they are found.
The plants of the Lomas have adapted to capture the condensed water from the Garúa fog. It was clear that the key to finding the Lomas is timing - the plants in the Lomas flourish throughout October and November when the fog is at its most abundant, but, as in Chile’s flowering desert, some years are better than others. The diversity of plants flowering at this time of year is overwhelming, as each species must get through its whole annual cycle in just a few months, and produce seed for the next year.
Selection of flowers from the Lomas
Plants on the brink
The plants of the Lomas face a life of hardship, as the extreme variations in both temperature and moisture have required adaptations to survive. Sadly, humans impose even greater challenges, from mining and pipelines, to tourists recklessly driving through the Lomas on massive recreational dune buggies. The Lomas vegetation is now in danger at the hands of such anthropogenic pressures.
Sand dune buggies used by tourists in Huacachina
In addition to these activities, the threat from climate change may pose even greater challenges, particularly as it brings about significant changes to the climate regime that these plants depend upon for survival. Many Lomas around Lima have already been completely lost due to unregulated urban expansion. However, thanks to the present Peruvian government’s foresight, Lomas protection is being extended. But protection can only happen with wide collaboration and ecological research. The conservation of the Lomas has never been so urgent, and we need to act fast, before these secret worlds are lost forever.
- Amanda -
About the GIS team
Kew was one of the first botanic gardens to have a dedicated Geographic Information Science (GIS) Unit. This was officially established in 1998 with the mission to ‘provide an interface for Kew's plant diversity research, presenting data and producing tools to underpin surveys and inventories, conservation and environmental monitoring’.
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